Familiarity, limited turnover could benefit team with games crunched together
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- They weren't all out in full force -- not yet anyway -- but Blues skaters were back on familiar ice Monday morning.
A day after a tentative deal on a new collective-bargaining agreement was reached between the National Hockey League and National Hockey League Players Association, things have started to slowly get back to normal in NHL facilities/arenas all across North America.
Of course the new 10-year CBA, which includes a mutual eight-year opt-out, needs ratification from both sides, including a majority vote. But for all intents and purposes, 30 teams are beginning the process of a shortened season (either 48 or 50 games) and the Blues, who finished second in the Western Conference last season, feel like they are equipped for the rigors that lie ahead: a game every other day on average.
"First off, our depth," said veteran winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who was one of couple handful of players that regularly skated here in town during the lockout. "(We have) a lot of guys that can play a lot of different roles. Unfortunately when you're going to have this sprint of a season and a bit of a compressed schedule, there's going to be injuries. You're going to need to use that depth. Secondly, we have a lot of the same guys back. There's going to be no feeling-out process (or) trying to build a team. Everybody in this locker room, with the exception of maybe two, three guys tops was here last year and knows what we're all about and the way we want to play. We're going to be able to hit the ground running with that, and third, I think we feel we have something to prove still. We made a step last year that put ourselves in that top group and put ourselves short of where we wanted to go of winning a Cup. We saw firsthand of what it takes and saw an LA team (that swept the Blues in the second round) and the way we played playing against them and knowing what it takes to get to that next level."
Blues goalie Brian Elliott, another one of the players who trained extensively in St. Louis, agreed.
"As the season went on, we had more and more expectations of ourselves," Elliott said of the Blues' 49-22-11 final mark. "We want to prove that it's not a fluke, that we are a good team and we have a core group of guys that can win on any given night and make it hard on anybody to play against. I think in a shortened season when you make it hard on teams, hopefully you can kind of make them quit a little bit earlier because of how hard the season's going to be and how the fatigue level's going to come in."
The Blues have had up to 10 skaters work regularly at the Hardees Iceplex in Chesterfield while the lockout dragged out for nearly four months, and they were one of three teams to have 10 or more players play games in Europe in various leagues from Germany to Sweden to Russia to Finland and the Czech Republic. But Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who has witnessed all three league lockouts since 1994-95, said teams that had more skaters on this side of the Atlantic will be better suited.
"I'm reading teams that have had 18 players skating together for two months, I'm reading teams that have had six, seven guys skating in the American (Hockey) League ... I think the one advantage are the teams that have the most players skating in North America on a regular basis playing hockey," Hitchcock said. "That would put teams like Edmonton in that mix because they've got a lot of top players that were able to play in the 'A.'
"I have no idea if playing in Europe helps or hinders. I have no idea. I just know that when we start up this weekend, hopefully when we start, there will be players that have played close to 40 hockey games and then some that have played zero. It's going to be an interesting challenge."
A challenge the players seem willing to rely on with the help of a veteran coaching staff that's been through these types of situations before.
"The biggest thing is going to come from our coaching staff knowing how to rest us depending on our schedule and how to get us to be as sharp as we possibly can to start the season in such a short amount of time," said winger David Perron, who arrived in St. Louis at 12:30 a.m. Monday morning after a 19.5-hour drive from his native Sherbrooke, Quebec. "We feel really confident in our room. A lot of these guys have been training together for the whole lockout. Now that it's over, guys are going to start rolling in.
"It's going to be a grind. I don't know if it's going to be similar to the Olympic season or not. With the Olympics, there's more games in less time. At the same time, I think the tough part was a week ago, we didn't know if we would play until next September. Now we know we're going to play in two weeks."
Elliott, T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Alex Pietrangelo, Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Barret Jackman, Kevin Shattenkirk (before leaving for Finland) were among the players that stuck around most of this lockout in St. Louis to train extensively in anticipation of a season at any time. It's certainly benefited those that did stay together.
"Having this core group of guys that was here all lockout long, we had a chance to just bond and be together and work out and push each other to know if this guy's working out, I better work out ... little things like that," said Elliott, who is coming off a 23-10-4 record and who was a league leader in goals-against average (1.56) as well as save percentage (.940) splitting time with Jaroslav Halak. "I think we've got a lot of young guys that are going to be excited and having those feet rolling as soon as the puck drops and we have those veterans to kind of calm everybody down, make sure to keep a level head ... not get too high, not get too low. That's the key for this type of shortened season.
"I haven't been through it before, but it'll be a good experience, a learning experience and I definitely feel we'll have to learn as we go."
Along with Shattenkirk, Kris Russell (Finland), Patrik Berglund (Sweden), Alex Steen (Sweden), Chris Stewart (Germany and Czech Republic), Vladimir Sobotka (Czech Republic), Roman Polak (Czech Republic), Matt D'Agostini (Germany), Vladimir Tarasenko (Russia) and Halak (one game in Germany) all played in Europe.
Those guys will be in game shape and have an upper hand on the pace of the game, but as Langenbrunner said: "Time will tell from that. It'll be interesting to see the difference between the guys that have been playing for the last couple months. Obviously they're in game shape and their timing's probably going to be a little bit better. Maybe we'll be able to lean on those guys a bit coming out of the gate and then there's a fear of maybe hitting a wall for those guys.
"It's been a long grind for them playing there and traveling back and forth, but most of us that were here are going to have that freshness and kind of pump that up. Hopefully we'll have a good mix with that. I think everybody's in that same boat of trying to figure out the new situation for almost everybody. The fact of us being together is going to really help. We know what buttons to push with guys and how to push each other a little bit."
Hitchcock, who replaced Davis Payne early last season, feels the fact the Blues have had limited changes in personnel is key.
"I don't know if we've got the biggest one, but I think it's a plus. I think it's an important plus, because we can cut through the get-to-know-you stage quickly," Hitchcock said. "I think that's a big advantage. I think when you can cut through the quick get-to-know-you stage, it's a big advantage.
"We're going to need it because when you look at our team, we've got a lot of big-minutes players who haven't played a game yet. That's going to be a challenge. We've got two goalies who've played very little, if not any goal. That's going to be a challenge. We've got significant challenges in the other places, but one thing we've got going for us, I think we can cut through the good and the bad pretty quickly here because we've got a great group of guys, great leadership, real sound, fundamental group of leaders and then everybody knows each other."
The New Jersey Devils won it all in that abbreviated 48-game season of 1994-95 with a mix of veterans and young, skillful players that also didn't have a lot of turnover.
Hitchcock can only hope lightning can strike in similar fashion.
"I think it's a team that can move on quickly," Hitchcock said is crucial for teams in this type of season. "It is going to be an emotional roller coaster. I watched it in 94-95 and one week, it looked like this team was never going to lose and then next week, it looked like they could never win. I think the team that can keep it grounded, keep the train on the tracks is going to do well here because it is a huge challenge. You're going to have games that just can't get shut down.
"The toughest thing to learn is checking. That's the hardest thing to teach players to do, to get out of summer hockey mode, get out of playing on-the-move mode and get into what you need to do to win in the NHL. That's a hard focus. It takes a long time to get there, and you're asking players to get there in seven days. You're going to have games where you gotta lead and it's going to evaporate quickly and you're going to have to gain it back. You're going to have games that are really emotional wins or losses. You're going to have to get grounded the next day. I think the teams that are going to be successful are the ones that can get their feet on the ground the next morning and get back to work."